Lionel Messi dramatically rescued Argentina and cruelly dashed Iranian dreams with a brilliant injury-time winner in Belo Horizonte. Having defended stoically and frustrated one of the favorites for World Cup for 90 minutes, the World Cup’s rank outsiders, Iran, appeared headed for the finest result in the country’s football history.
Instead as the clock ticked past the 90-minute mark with the score line still goalless, Messi came up with a moment of brilliance to curl a shot into the far corner from 20 yards and seal his team’s place in the last 16. Having faced much scrutiny prior to the tournament for his need to step up on the sport’s biggest stage, Messi has now come up with superb individual goals in both Argentina’s matches to rescue far from complete team performances from Alejandro Sabella’s side.
While Argentina have avoided an ignominious result to make it two wins from two matches in Brazil, the result was incredibly cruel on Iran. For the second-straight match coach Carlos Queiroz’s meticulous defensive organization rendered Iran’s opponents impotent. But while, the respect Iran earned against Nigeria may have been somewhat begrudging, few could offer them anything but unmitigated praise this time around. Not only did Iran keep the likes of Messi, Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain quiet for almost the entire match, but in the second half they were arguably the better team. Certainly they had the clearest chances. A penalty decision that didn’t go their way and a fine save from Argentina keeper Sergio Romero denied Iran the chance to go in front, but they remain in contention to progress to the next round heading to their final game against Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Argentina’s final group game against Nigeria will now be all about securing first spot in the group, but Sabella and certainly the Argentine public will surely be demanding a much improved performance that justifies their tag as one of the tournament’s favorites.
Argentina had improved on a dismal first-half performance against Bosnia when Sabella bought on Higuain and Fernando Gago at half-time and switched to their more familiar 4-3-3 formation. It was no surprise that’s how they began against Group F’s supposed minnows.
From the off, it was all one-way traffic. Argentina were able to dominate possession with Iran packing every player behind the ball and concentrating on packing them centrally to deny Messi any space in which to thrive. Still, there were some early positive signs for Argentina. A brilliant ball around the side of the defense got Higuain in behind, but his lack of sharpness, which was evident throughout, prevented him from beating the quick reactions of Alireza Haghighi. Iran’s goalkeeper was equally impressive midway through the opening period when diving to turn away a shot after Higuain had set up the equally disappointing Aguero.
Other than from set-pieces, which led to Ezequiel Garay and Marcos Rojo disappointingly heading over, from then on out it was a desperately sterile performance from Argentina despite all their possession. The space to exploit Iran was out wide, but neither of Argentina’s full-backs -- Rojo and Zabaleta -- had the required ability on the ball to truly threaten Iran.
And, in the second-half, Iran became increasingly confident and even began to pose a danger on the counter-attack. There was real uncertainty in the Argentina back line when they did so. Forward Reza Ghoochannejhad stooped in front of a defender to put a header on goal that fortunately for Romero was straight at him. In the 54th minute Argentina should not have gotten off so easily. The tireless Fulham midfielder Ashkan Dejagah led an Iran break and burst into the box before being toppled by a desperate challenge from Zabaleta. Slight contact was made on the ball by the Argentina defender but he also clattered Dejagah to leave the Iranian incensed. More frustration followed for Dejagah when his goal-bound header was acrobatically tipped over at the last by Romero.
As Argentina continued to struggle, Sabella remained strangely inactive on the sidelines. Indeed it wasn’t until 13 minutes before the end that he made his first substitutions when ending the misery of Higuain and Aguero and replacing them with Ezequiel Lavezzi and Rodrigo Palacio. Ultimately, as Iran began to tire, it was left to Messi to come up with the goods.
Messi had found space just once previously in the contest when he placed a shot wide of the post. This time he took full advantage. Having harried him throughout the match, Iran’s midfielders were now crucially just a yard slower to close Messi down, leaving him just enough space to curl a perfect effort into the far corner.
The man with whom the Barcelona star is constantly compared, Diego Maradona, would have approved as he watched on from the stands in Belo Horizonte. Unless Argentina improve, Messi will have little option but to exceed even Maradona’s 1986 heroics to lead his team to the World Cup trophy.